It’s an anecdote I sometimes tell when exchanging harrowing life stories with others: When I was a 20-year-old student at a university in Israel, I was nearly stranded in Egypt. Two friends and I had spent 10 days backpacking up and down the river Nile and were on our way back to our school. It was a great trip in many ways, but my female friend and I experienced several incidents of unwelcome sexual advances. Men touched us, rubbed up against us, and cornered us in dimly lit shops. The male friend we were with was mostly oblivious to what was happening, bantering and bartering cheerfully, wearing shorts while we had to cover our arms and legs in the heat of the desert.
At the border, exhausted and traumatized, I learned that my Israeli student visa had expired, and I could not legally reenter Israel. I was terrified and on my last emotional thread — and I burst into tears. I remember yelling at the border agent, but at my tears he suddenly grew kind. He comforted me, told me everything was going to be OK, that they would let us through, and I could get another visa the next day at the American embassy. He even ended up giving the three of us a ride back to our school, since we’d missed the last bus back. Everything worked out fine.
It’s a story of one of the lowest, scariest moments of my life, but I tell it sometimes as a funny anecdote of how I cried and got my way. I’ve never been a Jewish American Princess before, I’ll joke (I’m a Christian but my dad’s family is Jewish). Or, isn’t it funny how men are afraid of women’s tears? But several years ago, when I told this story to my new housemate, a black woman, she looked at me with disgust, and never trusted me after that.
Last week, Shay Stewart-Bouley published an article called Weapons of lass destruction: The tears of a white woman, in which she shared how white women have used their emotions, and society’s response to them, as weapons against her and other people of color.
“… few things bring other white people — especially men, and sometimes no matter how misogynist they are — to a white woman’s defense than her declaring that she is feeling hurt, sad or discomfited by the words, arguments or actions (no matter how reasonable or nonviolent) of a Black person.”
Luvvie Ajayi responded with a post of her own, agreeing with Stewart-Bouley’s perspective and sharing the stories of many black women’s experiences. I highly recommend reading both pieces.
As I processed my housemate’s reaction to my story, my main feeling was of defensiveness. I hadn’t purposely used my tears to manipulate people. As far as I can remember, I haven’t done that since I was a child, and it wasn’t even particularly effective then. And times when I have cried, in professional or personal settings, it was most often out of a deep frustration at my own powerlessness in a situation where, as a woman, I felt I was not being heard or respected. Men have many times, in both overt and subtle ways, told me that my emotions were irrational and evidence of my immaturity and, in some Christian circles, the unfitness of my gender for leadership. My whole adult life I had been searching for places it was OK to cry, where my strong emotions would be seen as strength and wisdom, an appropriate response to the suffering of this world, rather than a weakness. I still feel this strongly, that the deep lament within me, and within others, particularly women, is holy.
But Stewart-Bouley’s and Ajayi’s articles give me insight into my housemate’s response. My story of crying at the Israeli border seemed innocuous to me, a way of laughing at my own emotional frailty, but I can now see how it would seem like a veiled message of my power to my black friend — a power that she doesn’t have. As a white woman, I walk a delicate line between being hurt by misogyny and white supremacy and benefiting from it. When I experience the pain of limitations at work, of being put down and dismissed by male colleagues, professors, and pastors, and of outright sexual harassment and assault (yes, #metoo), it is hard to see the ways in which this same system is also supporting and benefitting me. The very attitude that frustrates and limits me, that women are inferior and need to be protected, also caters to me in ways that it does not cater to black women. And, as Stewart-Bouley points out, that catering can be fatal.
We don’t need to go back to 1955 for an example of this. Emmett Till was 14 when he was brutally murdered because a white woman said he touched her and insulted her (claims she recently recanted). Just last week, a white woman’s discomfort at the presence of two black men in the Starbucks where she worked led to their arrest, despite the fact that it was clear no law had been broken. And though, in this case, the men were released the next morning, many other men and women of color have ended up dead when the police were involved. Sandra Bland. Freddie Gray. Philando Castile. Tamir Rice. Michael Gardner. As a white woman, I need to be aware that I hold this dangerous power, and act appropriately.
So what can I do to make sure I don’t weaponize my tears? How can I learn to grieve, heal, and stand strong in a misogynist culture without harming others in the process? I’ve found three ways that have been vital in my own life.
1. Commit to doing the work of my own emotional growth and healing.
As children we all develop coping mechanisms to survive the pain and challenges of this world, but as adults we must sort through which of these mechanisms are productive and helpful, and which are ultimately more harmful. I have to identify the harmful ones, dismantle them, and replace them with healthy coping mechanisms. This is an important process for my own health, but it is doubly important in the context of working toward racial justice.
2. Learn how to listen well.
I say listen well, because my own defensiveness in this area can make even well-intentioned listening ineffective. I have to be willing and able to listen to the stories and perspectives of people of color while holding my own feelings loosely, resisting the temptation to center myself, and the temptation to respond with a dismissive, “Not all white people are like that!”
Another part of listening well is finding appropriate places to ask questions. It is not the job of every black women on social media to answer my questions about racism. But there is an abundance of resources out there if I take the responsibility to educate myself. Stewart-Bouley’s blog is one. Austin Channing Brown has generously curated a library of books about racial justice. I have also found Twitter to be a place where I can follow women and men of color, watch other white people make mistakes I can learn from, and also get called out for my own mistakes.
3. Find places to express and process my emotions and reactions to things — like being called out on Twitter — that are safe for me and not potentially harmful to others.
A good therapist can be one of those places. A trusted white friend, or group of friends, who are also committed to racial justice, can also be extremely helpful. Here, also, it’s important that I don’t ask my black friends to help me through this process. Just as in the ring theory of pain, comfort and support should go inward, to those suffering the most, while complaining goes out.
Once I have committed to healing, listening, and safely processing my emotions, I can begin to find ways to use that health and knowledge to stand strong, and to use that strength to lift up other women rather than harming them.